Ben Model Makes Silent Movies Sing in Willsboro

This is my first silent movie with a live accompanist and I know for a fact that it won’t be my last. This evening’s event finds me at Willsboro School where the Champlain Valley Film Society (CVFS) is hosting renowned pianist/organist/film historian Ben Model and two Charlie Chaplin movies: “A Dog’s Life” and “The Kid.”

Ben Model is one of the USA's leading silent film accompanists, and has been playing piano and organ for silent movies at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the past 28 years.  He co-curates MoMA's annual "Cruel and Unusual Comedy" series and also co-curated their 2006 Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle retrospective.

Although I’m told there is a World Series game going on concurrently along with any number of Halloween-related screenings elsewhere in the county, there is a good-sized and eager audience for tonight’s features.

Film Society Board Member Kathryn Reinhardt introduces the event, explaining that the rest of the year’s film series will take place back in the CVFS home at The Whallonsburg Grange Hall. The reason for the departure tonight is the Grand Piano which Willsboro school has lent the CVFS for the evening. Ms. Reinhardt then goes on to introduce Ben Model, whom she says can explain the movies better than she.

Mr. Model is fascinating to listen to both speaking and at the keyboard. His knowledge of the silent film industry and the manner in which he delivers his anecdotes are captivating.

We learn about Charlie Chaplin’s early days in the movie business and how he became an overnight sensation and of his tireless and exacting methods of film-making. We also learn that in the feature, “The Kid” Chaplin shares the screen with a very young Jackie Coogan who is best known for his role as Uncle Fester in the TV series “The Addams Family”.

Ben Model explains that the musical score we will be hearing is largely improvised and basically unique to tonight’s event. It will probably be a little different the next time he plays it and is certainly different than the one he played a couple of nights before.

As the first film begins, I look over at Mr. Model to see how he interacts with the screen. More often than not, he is looking up and watching the action as his fingers race along the keys creating just the right mood for each scene and plot twist.

Afterwards, Mr. Model leads an informative question and answer session. The first question is from a girl who asks, “Did he really have a mustache like that?” Ben smiles and answers, “No, it was a false mustache stuck on with spirit gum.” Another audience member asks, “Was it all written down, was the whole concept/action put on paper?” In answer, Ben describes how Charlie Chaplain would shoot and shoot and shoot until something hit him….basically these were his own ideas, his concepts…Charlie Chaplin was a pioneer. He intuitively knew things way beyond slapstick.

Another question was directed to Ben Model himself: “Did you spend a lot of time researching scores?”

Ben then explains how during the silent film era when scores were composed for orchestras they had  to be printed out and have some kind of coding. Most of the films of Douglas Fairbanks had full scores. Model says he tries to stay within the era but the scoring technique is slightly different today. When he plays Chaplin films he says he has Chaplin’s own music in mind.

It is a delight to experience this art form and I am eager to see how this will compare to the organ accompaniment of “Phantom of the Opera” which will herald the debut of the fully restored Wurlitzer organ at The Strand Theatre in Plattsburgh later this week.

To learn more about the CVFS season click through to the web site. For more events in the Lake Champlain Region, click here.

Kathleen Recchia has been enjoying the arts in the Adirondack for about 20 years—both as observer and participant (acting, directing, and producing). She also enjoys cross-country skiing, swimming, juggling, and hosting visitors to the area at her bed & breakfast in Jay.


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